Why has this video been watched 417 million times?

Today’s probing piece in the NYT — 417.6 Million Bites Later … by Sarah Lyall — raises some fascinating questions about the viral video Charlie bit my finger — again!

According to the piece, it’s the most-viewed noncommercial video in YouTube history. The British family that uploaded it has made over 100,000 pounds via the website’s partnership program.

The article focuses on two main questions, neither of which is satisfyingly answered: why is this particular video — so simple! — so overwhelmingly popular? and should Charlie and Harry’s parents be holding up their children’s lives to so many viewers in this and other videos?

Here’s the video:

From Lyall’s piece:

Britons both envy and resent fame and the riches it brings, particularly when it falls on ordinary people, and the family has had its share of sniping. Jan Moir in The Daily Mail compared people who profit from their children’s videos to Victorian parents who sent their children to work in factories and as match sellers on the street.

“You may as well earn a few bob out of the ungrateful tykes,” she said sarcastically.

It is hard to get your videos to spread widely, Mr. Davies-Carr said, and he does not want other families to harbor false hopes of replicating the success of “Charlie.” He takes the whole enterprise very seriously, removing abusive comments from the “Charlie” Web site and regularly posting fresh videos of the boys doing things like running around in knights’ outfits. He does no coaching and no scripting, he said; he thinks of the videos as snippets of family life that just happen to be available for all to see.

As for Harry and Charlie, they did not have much to say about their camera-captured lives, proving more eager to discuss pressing matters like Charlie’s impending Harry Potter-themed birthday party. When they are old enough, their father said, he will let them decide whether to continue living semiexamined lives.

I’m teaching a mini-course in media ethics right now at Armstrong as part of an interdisciplinary ethics class. I’ve thought a lot about the issues involved here, and but my thinking hasn’t gotten any more clarified on issues of privacy, exploitation, the monetization of “reality” and so forth and so on.

So my own answers to those initial questions sound sort of lame, but it’s the best I can do.

The video is so popular because it’s short, because Harry’s accent is adorable to American ears (and perhaps other nationalities), and because it seems like the brothers are so genuinely close and sweet (aside from the maniacal toddler laugh). If you’re despairing that people only want to see the twisted and sordid, well here’s considerable evidence to the contrary.

And should the parents be making money off this? Yes.